Royal Caribbean's Inaugural Cruise to Cuba
This was my first real cruise experience. I had been on a cruise in Vietnam, but it was so different from what most American's think of Cruises that I'm pretty sure it doesn't count. My friend Linh loves cruises and requested a cruise bachelorette party before her wedding. So when she found a great deal on a five day cruise with stops in Cozumel and Key West, I obliged like the good bride's mate that I am. I left my seven month-old baby and husband behind for this trip (which was way harder than I thought it would be - more on that at the end of this post). Shortly after we booked the cruise, Royal Caribbean decided that they would be changing the itinerary so they could make their first ever trip to Cuba. This changed our port stops to Costa Maya and Havana which I was totally on board with since I had never been to Mexico or Cuba.
Day 1 - Boarding in Miami
I had a very early flight and caught up with the rest of the bachelorette party at the Miami airport. We headed to the port and started the check in process which was lengthy but festive with live music. We were on the Empress of the Seas which is apparently Royal Caribbean's smallest ship. It did not seem small to me at all.
We made a beeline for the Windjammer buffet which met my expectations of being very extensive and decadent. After checking into our room, we headed up to the pool, and participated in a little bit of salsa line dancing. Linh and I both love Zumba, and so this cruise basically offered us like three Zumba classes a day with all the latin line dancing. Only it was Zumba that you could do with a beer in hand, and beer Zumba is the best Zumba.
After exploring the boat and getting in some pool time, we changed for our dinner seating. The rest of the bachelorette party were experienced cruisers and informed me that it's pretty standard to get an assigned dinner time and table that you stick with throughout the cruise. We of course had the option of skipping the seated dinner and just eating at the buffet, but the seated dinner offered much more upscale options. We found out that we could order whatever food off the menu at no extra cost. We only had to pay extra for alcoholic drinks. I hate to complain about the food on the cruise because there were always so many options, and I always found plenty to eat. But I also often felt that the food looked a lot better than it tasted. They were definitely masters of plating and presentation.
We were all pretty exhausted after getting a very early start, so we headed to bed early.
Day 2 - A Day at Sea
This was a cruising day which meant that we were on a mission to fit in as many cruise activities as possible. We started with brunch. I have always loved brunch, and so I definitely appreciated that this cruise offered "Sunday Brunch" every day. Again the spread was impressive, but I was most impressed with the amazing fruit carvings. I also loved that there were free mimosas and bloody marys.
Since we were refreshed after a good night's sleep and pumped for our vacation, we managed to fit in a lot of activities. We went to a salsa dancing class, a napkin folding seminar, pamper party, shuffle board, trivia, and ribbon rose crafting session. I always thought I would not enjoy a cruise because of the being stuck on the boat factor, but it was pretty fun doing all these ridiculous activities with this group of gals. We closed out the night in one of the lounges tearing up the dance floor with some more line dancing.
Day 3 - Costa Maya Mexico
This was our day in Costa Maya. I'm pretty sure about 90% of Costa Maya was built for the Cruise Ship industry. While I have never spent anytime in Mexico outside of this day in Costa Maya, I imagine Costa Maya is like the adult disney world version of Mexico. There were dudes in big indigenous costumes waiting to take a picture with all the cruise passengers. Then there was a little village of shops selling trinkets amidst tree houses and pools. We hadn't booked any Costa Maya activities with the cruise, because we were certain we could find a better deal by booking on our own. My original thought was to check out Lago Bacalar, but we soon realized that was just not doable in the short amount of time we had in port. We ended up booking a snorkelling trip instead, which was super cool. We had a guide that snorkelled with us and pointed out things that I would have never seen on my on. The coolest thing that he pointed out to us were several sea turtles which were very curious about people.
We hung out at the beach for a little while and enjoyed the free open bar that came with our trip. We had fun with the bartenders who were inventing all of these crazy drinks and having us rank them.
It started raining when we got back to the boat. The movie Passengers was playing on the pool deck big screen, so we grabbed a hot tub and watched it in the rain. It was a pretty awesome way to watch a movie and end the day.
Day 4 - Day at Sea
This was another day at sea which mean that we had to fit in more activities! We managed to do the rock climbing wall, more line dancing, a cuba lecture, a sexy man contest, trivia, and a belly flop contest. We of course did not participate in the sexy man or belly flop contests but they were still a lot of fun to watch. The entertainment staff on the cruise ship was a ton of fun, and since it was a small ship we started to see some of the same people over and over again.
Day 5 - Havana, Cuba
We finally made it to Cuba. Getting off the boat and into Cuba was a little bit of a process, but went fairly smoothly. To go into Cuba, you still need to have a reason that falls into a few categories. All of the cruise excursions were designed so that we would all fit into the cultural exchange category and we all had to sign an affadavit basically saying that we would mingle with the locals. Because of these restrictions, we kind of felt obligated to sign up for a cruise-sponsored tour. We signed up for the cheapest and shortest tour they offered which was a walking tour. The tour guide was pretty awful at keeping us together and engaged in what he was saying. Maybe it was just because he took us to a bunch of plaza de armas and I could kind of care less about such things. He then shuffled us all on a bus and took us to a hotel to see how cigars are rolled.
I later learned that all of the Cuban tour companies are run by the government, so let's hope the free market will soon improve their walking tours.
We had a lot more fun after the tour just roaming around. We went to the famous Bodeguita Del Medio where Hemmingway supposedly drank mojitos. The thing to do there is sign your name on the wall. I had brought a sharpie for just that purpose and so we all made our mark before getting a drink.
The most fun part of our day was taking a ride in a classic car. I kind of thought there would be a few fancy classic cars around for show, but I was surprised by the quantity we saw driving around everywhere. We paid a driver of one of these cars to drive us around for a half hour.
Since Linh wanted to get some rum, we asked our driver to take us to a good place to buy liquor. He drove around with the top down and music blasting asking his buddies where the best place for rum was, before finally settling on a place where all the old Cuban men were hanging out. It was indeed a good spot to find rum and a bunch of characters.
The last night's dinner was French themed which meant escargot was on the menu. I had never had escargot and so learned how delicious it is. I later shared this with my grandmother who just happened to have an escargot serving set that she passed down to me. So thanks to this cruise, we now have escargot at home somewhat regularly.
After dinner, we participated in one of the cruise's game shows which was so much fun. It required me to steal a guy's belt, do the worm, and dance Gangam style on stage. From there the game got a little out of hand with some of the more raucous cruise passengers. I just hope there weren't any kids in the audience that night.
Day 6 - Miami - Jupiter, FL
We returned to Miami and I took the opportunity to spend a day with my grandma and grandpa who live about an hour and a half north in Jupiter, Florida. I have done this a couple times while in Miami, and I totally recommend Tri Rail if you are heading in that direction. It's super cheap and comfortable.
Overall, I had a great time on this cruise. It was a lot of fun mainly because of the group of people I was with. I did however feel like we couldn't explore ports much because of our limited time. I felt a little bit like the cruise was the boss of my vacation and I just much prefer being un-bossed. I really need better self control around all the food too. I would consider a cruise again if I was going with a big group of fun folks. I think I would also consider an Alaska cruise because that seems like a good way to get a taste for Alaska and then you could go back and explore more. But overall I still would say that I am not a cruise convert.
Cruise - $294. This of course includes room and board. We were a group of four girls and shared one room which had two sets of bunk beds. Once the itinerary of our trip changed, the price per person would have jumped to $800 per person. So this was really an amazing deal.
Cruise on board expenses - $274. This included hospitality, alcoholic drinks, and visa for Cuba. Note - they let you bring one bottle of wine on the boat and then bringing alcohol back on the boat from ports was no issue.
Flight - $124.
Activities - $95. This included snorkeling in Mexico and our walking tour and classic car tour in Cuba. Yes we made those fabulous ribbon chokers for free!
Total = $787
Notes about Travelling as a New Mom without Baby
I was not one of those mothers that immediately fell in love with their baby, and I booked this trip when Lewis was about two months old. At that point, he didn't have much of a personality and our bond was basically predicated on his need for the milk that I produced. Around three or four months was when his personality really started to shine through, and I really fell for the guy. So being away from him for a whole week at seven months was a lot harder than I thought it would be when I originally booked the trip. Nevertheless, I was and still am committed to maintaining my identity outside of motherhood. Travel, adventure, and my friendships pre-baby are still really important to me, and I will continue to honor those values even if it means having a little ache in my heart.
Despite dreading being without my baby and feeling a ton of guilt about leaving my husband with all those nighttime feedings and diaper changes, I was really looking forward to catching up on some much needed sleep. While that did happen, my expectations for how amazing I would feel as a well-rested woman did not quite meet reality. It was a good reminder that exhaustion can be a state of mind. When I got back home, I got a lot better at sucking it up and convincing myself I wasn't exhausted.
The milk is always another huge concern for new moms. I managed to pump and save all the breast milk I produced on this trip. I called Royal Caribbean ahead of time and let them know of my need to freeze breast milk while on board. They were very accommodating and put a mini-fridge in our room which had just enough freezer space for the five days worth of breast milk. I did work on consolidating my pumping schedule to two pumps during the day before this trip. That way I didn't have the headache of bringing my breast pump with me on excursions. I always had a huge freezer stash of breast milk, so Lewis was well taken care of while I was away. I have more tips about storing and travelling with breast milk in my 10 Travel Tips for First Year with Baby Post.